Album Review of
Cornbread Nation

Written by Joe Ross
January 22, 2014 - 12:00am EST
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Tim O'Brien is not afraid to arrange an old traditional number like "Hold On" with electric guitar (Kenny Vaughan) and conga and shaker (Kenny Malone). He recognizes that traditional music is timeless, but he also welcomes the opportunity to incorporate modern sounds right alongside the old. While a bit lengthy, take the 6-minute rendition of "Moses," for example. Kenny Malone's drum kit imparts a solid rhythmic foundation as banjo, fiddle, guitar and four vocalists get spiritual.

Tim shows a very adventurous side with the title cut that could have the same significant impact on this century's music as "Hot Corn, Cold Corn" did when Flatt & Scruggs first presented that in the last one. For folks who want to discover how to embody saxophone into traditional music, then they need look no further than Sam Levine's playing on songs like "Cornbread Nation" and "The Foggy, Foggy Dew." 

That gives a clue as to why I appreciate O'Brien's releases. Besides his own zestful singing and picking, he also hears accordion, drums, percussion, electric guitar, steel guitar and other instruments right alongside the traditional string sounds of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bouzouki. He also branches into various genres such as Cajun with "Let's Go Huntin'," that the supporting musicians also clearly enjoyed too. 

The blues are best captured on this album when Tim O'Brien and Dan Tyminiski sing "House of the Risin' Sun." Well, Jimmie Rodgers' "California Blues" is full of old-time country moxie and yodeling but also some slightly distorted electric guitar with reverb and driving snare drum. On "Boat Up the River," I would've preferred hearing some banjo and less electric guitar. 

Bluegrassers will perk up at the original "Runnin' Out of Memory" (with Del McCoury's tenor). A slower country twang permeates the cover of Harlan Howard's "Busted." A number of the songs are only sung solo, and I heard a few opportunities where Tim could've built a few more vocal harmonies into the mixes. However, those looking for vocal harmonies will certainly enjoy the album closer, "When this World omes to an End," with electric guitar, drums, bass, and mandolin accompanying the vocals of Tim O'Brien, Odessa Settles, Todd Suttles, and Darrell Scott. 

Tim O'Brien has built a reputation for being able to bring a new sense of contemporary spirit and perceptiveness to older music. With spring coming, "Cornbread Nation" is like a new bloom in the garden. Crossing into a multitude of genres (Gospel, old-time, blues, bluegrass, classic country, Cajun) is part of his approach. Creative arrangements are another element. Finally, Tim also likes to hear traditional instruments alongside drums, percussion, electric guitar, saxophone and other non-traditional ones. As long as you like this type of transmutation, you'll find this CD to be very fulfilling and stimulating.